The Short, Dramatic Life Of The Steamboat Yellow Stone

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For a steamboat in those times, the four-year-old Yellow Stone was getting along in years.

Traveling under the name of Baron Braunsberg, Maximilian was a short, pudgy man nearing fifty, dressed in green hunting garb, who had been a student at Göttingen, a Prussian army officer, and a sojourner in South America. He had published a book on the native peoples and natural history of Brazil and now had an intense interest in the American West. The artist Bodmer was a young Swiss of great talent, better trained than Catlin and with an eye for landscape and figure painting that was remarkable. Bodmer’s output of watercolors and oils still brings crowds to museum galleries, and his portraits of Indians are among the finest ever made. Maximilian was later to publish an account of his Western travels, the translation of which has long been standard fare for students of the West. And his diaries on the ethnology and ecology of the regions he steamed through are now being translated at the Joslyn Art Museum, in Omaha.

According to Maximilian’s account, the Yellow Stone left the landing in St. Louis about noon on April 10 with perhaps a hundred people on board. Chouteau and his daughters rode to St. Charles and disembarked. McKenzie was a passenger, as were three subagents going upriver to visit the tribes in their charge. Dr. Benjamin F. Fellowes, carrying a new commission as an Army surgeon and wearing the traditional black frock coat of his profession, was going to Fort Leavenworth on his first tour of duty.

The birds and animals, and the scenes along the river, delighted Maximilian. He often compared what he was seeing with sights in his homeland or in Brazil. He thought the Independence Creek was “a brook like the Windbach,” and he wrote that in the quietness of the forests he missed the chatter of parrots, macaws, and monkeys of the jungle. But both he and Bodmer loved the pronghorn, the buffalo, and the mule deer. During one grounding he recorded thirty-five species of birds.

Members of the crew brought in specimens for Maximilian to study and preserve. The pilot gave him butterflies that wandered into the pilothouse atop the boiler deck. A passenger brought a raccoon, shot during a wood stop, and the skin went to Dreidoppel for preparation. The carcass went to the kitchen.

Ignorant of the long history of liquor control, Maximilian thought the search of the hold at Leavenworth was curious. He talked the officers out of confiscating the brandy he used in preserving specimens and said that during the search the cabin was as busy as a pigeon loft.

The Assiniboin, which had left St. Louis first, soon ran into low water and was overtaken by the Yellow Stone. Both vessels struggled with snags and sandbars, often going aground within hailing distance of each other. The crewmen, waiting for captain and pilot to consult on the best plan for escape, bowled or fired at targets on sandbars.

At Fort Pierre, Maximilian and his retinue took passage on the Assiniboin , which was proceeding to Fort Union. From there they would travel even farther up the Missouri to the mouth of the Marias, then return to spend the winter among the Mandans, whose villages were below Fort Union, before going back to Europe.

By June 21 the Yellow Stone was in St. Louis again, having fought the fierce waters of the upper Missouri for the last time. She would make a summer trip to Cabanné’s post—carrying cholera, which wiped out most of the crew before the boat reached Leavenworth. A new contingent came up from St. Louis on a keelboat so that the voyage could continue. The disease took some lives at Bellevue as an epidemic raged throughout the country; it had broken out before the steamboat arrived.

Following his usual pattern, Chouteau then sent the vessel south for the winter. She returned in the spring of 1834 to engage in the lead trade at the mines of Dubuque and Galena on the upper Mississippi. She had been put on the market but was as yet unsold.

For a steamboat of those times, the Yellow Stone was getting along in years: too many collisions with snags, too many grinding encounters with sandbars, and always the pounding of the engine that sent shudders through the hull from bow to sternpost. Five years was the average life of such a steamboat, and the Yellow Stone was now four.

In the spring of 1835 she was sold to a combine of owners in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and apparently was consigned to live out her life as a common working boat without further public attention. But events were astir on another part of the Western frontier that were to renew and heighten her fame.